The amazing thing about social media in the classroom is that it engages all learners. That’s right, I used the word-that-shall-not-be-said—“all!”

From students who excel at class discussion to the shy turtle who never sticks his head out of his shell, sites like Twitter, Goodreads, and Facebook have the ability to grab every student’s attention and give the tortoises a chance to speak out.

Having shy students in class isn’t uncommon, and it is easy to lose them in the marathon. Our turtles are sometimes easily stressed, afraid to put themselves out there, and often resistant to group activities, preferring to stay in the warm cozy safety of their shell instead. What social media is capable of doing is minimizing the stress of being vocal in a class full of peers and giving these shy kids a voice, something that lies at the very heart of differentiation.

True differentiation, tailoring our teaching to meet the needs of the individual, happens when educators utilize social media. Differentiating the learning environment, the content, the process, or the products by making use of some of the free media sites available can help instructors reach every learner. And because our classes are designed with the traditional model of teacher as architect of the track and students as runners, differentiation is the key to keeping each member of the class on pace and striding towards the finish line. Perhaps the trick is for those of us setting the route to make it a fair race or to consider encouraging the students to help with design of the course. Social media can be instrumental in doing this.

The following three free user-friendly social media websites can help to differentiate with your tortoises and hares. I’ve included a few ideas to start your track design!

TWITTER

What to assign?

1. Posit a question relating to the material from that day—English: What did you think about Dante’s journey into the second circle? What might his meeting with Francesca symbolize? History: If you were fighting in the Battle of Hastings and could text message, what would you report back home to your family and friends? Science: In the experiment today, how did the results of your lab differ from a classmate’s? Math: How can the equation we learned today be used in a real-world setting?

2. Have students tweet as a favorite author, scientist, historical figure, mathematician, or character from a book. (See my “To Tweet or Not to Tweet” article for my personal experience with this assignment.)

3. Ask students to tweet a current event that applies to your field of study. For example: This week, find one event in the world where advances in technology are being questioned or scientists are being called irresponsible.

4. Math: Have students tweet (or Facebook status update) and then follow the exponential growth of that tweet as it is passed from friend to friend. They can chart the growth over an allotted time period.

In giving Twitter a try, I learned that tweeting removed inhibitions while providing additional time for my students—specifically, my shyer students—to design their responses to our discussions. Both my cheeky little rabbits and my quieter tortoises took more time planning what to write, the end result being better posts and better grades. I would also like to mention that as with any social media site, especially those that are public, caution and etiquette are keys to a successful experience

FACEBOOK

What to assign?

1. English or History: Ask students to create pages for characters from a book you are reading in class and to have conversations, post pictures or videos, and follow the events of the book (via the timeline). I use this with my Hunger Games unit, and my students adore writing as Katniss, Peeta, and Gale! Social studies or history teachers could also assign novels as a complement to their textbooks and require the same.

2. History or Science: Ask students to create pages for scientists or famous historical figures and have conversations, post pictures or videos, or even debate via the timeline. Try having science students create a page for a late scientist and have that figure respond to what is happening in his or her field today. (English teachers could have students select different authors and imagine conversations between them—this would be great to teach tone, diction, and style.)

3. Drama: Have students create a page for the character that they are playing in a production. The characters can interact, and students will have a better understanding of the role that they are playing. Again, tone, diction, and style can be part of the assignment guidelines.

GOODREADS

Many may not be as familiar with this website as with other social media sites. A quick description: Goodreads provides a place where users can catalogue the books that they have read, are reading, or would like to read. Users can write reviews for books, create bookshelves for different genres (or classes or groups), and share their favorite works with the online community. This is a great resource for modeling and promoting independent reading!

What to assign?

1. Ask students to read a certain number of books per quarter or semester, and require them to write a review for each book and post it to the website. This is an excellent way to teach voice and audience (we know that they get tired of writing just to us)! The teacher can receive weekly or daily emails regarding what their students are reading or reviewing.

2. Have students create a bookshelf of books that are relevant to their study in your class and to read reviews to help decide reliability and usefulness to the topic.

3. Create a group and ask students to review each book you’ve listed on the group’s bookshelf; you can also start online discussions on the group’s page!

Now, that I’ve introduced the three sites that I love, I’ll share the two main questions most teachers ask:

1. How do I start?

It’s easy! Go to the website you’ve chosen, make an account. Next, ask your students to make accounts and to follow or friend you. Follow or befriend them. And Go! I would also suggest a rule about not “friending” others outside of the class and making all pages private—this will help control access and privacy; however, in the case of Goodreads, communicating with others outside the class may actually be of greater benefit to your students.

2. How do I evaluate this type of assignment?

Create a rubric which evaluates frequency; quality of their posts, tweets, or reviews; adherence to the assignment guidelines; effort; and creativity. You may also want to consider retweets, friend requests, or other ways that the students interact.

Ultimately, educators have the difficult, if not impossible task, of employing a variety of styles and methods that reach their students, and using a social media extends the classroom discussions and activities outside the walls of the school, providing both the tortoises and hares with a learning environment that inspires creativity and higher order thinking. With our increasingly technologically savvy students, it is getting more and more difficult to keep up with the online trends. But if we can, then our growing children who spend the majority of time online will benefit from it!

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